Marketplace Italian brings traditional cheese production to centre of Prague
Italy is famous for its family run businesses making top quality products. But in recent years the economy has been contracting and many young Italians have moved abroad to seek jobs and new opportunities. In this week’s marketplace we look at one Italian couple who have moved to Prague with the idea of creating their own one stop site for producing and selling mozzarella and other specialities from their homeland.
Marco D’Amely Melodia and his partner Tiziana are part of that new Italian exodus. And they chose the Czech capital Prague for the launch of a new business combining traditional Italian know how with a lower cost Czech market.
Around eight months ago and after a year’s preparation, they started their business producing and selling mozzarella at a site in the not so fashionable Prague suburb of Nusle, a kilometre or two from the city centre. You walk through the doors into a small restaurant with the walls filled with olive oil, wine, pasta, and preserved vegetables from the couple’s home region of Puglia in the south of Italy. All the produce is from small family businesses. And from a large window in the restaurant and from the street you can see the workers making mozzarella and other cheeses five or six times a week.
Marco says that starting such a business in Italy would have been unthinkable. First of all, of course, is the novelty of such a business in Prague, but there is also the fundamental fact that start up costs are a lot lower in the Czech Republic than in Italy. The mozzarella business, Mozzarellart, was funded from their own money from selling an Italian betting business and that of an Italian partner already living in Prague for 10 year, who helped to smooth the launch for a couple who admit that their Czech is still undeveloped and shaky.
Banging the table, Marco is dismissive of the attitude taken by banks: “If I go to the bank with a good business plan and a good idea and say please give me 20,000 euros, they just smile. They don’t help, they don’t help at all. They only help sure investments, the 100 percent big company where they are sure they will get their money back.”
Marco and Tiziana have followed a circuitous route to Prague, although they already knew the city after winning a masters’ grant to study there after in 2008. Marco later worked as an assistant to an Italian member of parliament and also at the Italian consulate in London.
What they are bringing to Prague is a taste of traditional Italian know how. Making mozzarella from cows’ milk is still practiced by many families for their own needs though the small businesses that do this commercially are under pressure from big producers who, Marco says, cut costs by adulterating the milk with cheaper additives.
But not having a mozzarella making background of his own, Marco has also had to employ two experienced Italians for the Prague production. And that has been a major cost. “This kind of work in Italy is paid around 2,500 euros a month and that is the kind of salary that they want. And that is a very heavy cost. It is not easy because we need someone to help produce the mozzarella, someone to help the producer, another to help with selling, another for the milk, another for deliveries. It a complex set up. But we have reached a good level compared to when we started. Maybe we didn’t make great money from the start but we are covering all the costs and that is a source of satisfaction. It is a good sign when you can cover all the costs in the first year.”
Marco says that there is no way of cutting out such expertise which might add up to around 25 years in cheese making which might have started with the family as a child. Knowing what you can do with a batch of milk is an art, he adds. “Milk is something that is alive, it changes day by day. One day is one thing, another day is another. Today the milk might be basic, tomorrow it might be acidic. Today the cows are stressed and produce fatty milk, tomorrow they are relaxed and produce more liquid milk. Milk is something that changes day by day. And the good worker is one who can read the milk, speak with the milk, and tells me ‘okay, yes, today I know what sort of work I must do’”
Daily cheese production has risen from around three to five kilos a day at the start to around 10 to 20 kilos now. The cheese is made five or six days a week so deliveries are always fresh. Marco reckons that around 60 percent of the production is sold out of the restaurant and shop and 40 percent to hotels or other businesses that are now ringing in orders. Some of the top Prague hotels are now taking Marco’s cheese, there are around 20 to 25 different varieties.
And he is more than happy with his Nusle location which in one way had the advantage of sparking a lot of interest from passing Czechs. “We are lucky because we have the tram, the tram stop. And people ask themselves ‘what are they doing’ and they come. That is my first marketing. I know that the area is not the best, I know this. But my idea is to open something for the citizens and maybe this area is good because it is not so far from the centre, from Prague 10 and Prague 2, where people for the most part live more of less. And people come from every part of Prague and ask me ‘Marco, when are you going to open in Prague 6 or Prague 7?’”
And Marco does indeed have his expansion plans for the future though he has some concerns that the higher purchasing power of Prague and the willingness of Czechs there to try out foreign food might not be reciprocated quite so much in regional towns and cities. “To dream is free and if I think of one of my dreams it is to open a chain of these type of shops, also perhaps maybe as franchises. I don’t know, but with a shop they can taste fresh things and the real mozzarella, that is my dream. I think I prefer franchising because the first rule of business is that the owner takes a keen interest in it. Only the owner gives the magic touch needed for good business. I know that in the Czech Republic there is the idea of the business run by managers, but the manager is not the owner. I am Italian, I come from a family business, it is normal. For us it is impossible to give the key to the business to another person.”
So clear evidence there that the traditional Italian business model is being transferred to the more hospitable Czech environment for start ups without losing some of its basic traits.